Outer Coast

Outer Coast
This province extends northwestward along the Gulf of Alaska from Icy Point to Yakutat Bay. Riven by the seam between the Pacific and North American plates, it is being rapidly thrust upward by tectonic forces. This results in a landscape laid out in bands parallel to the coast. These bands are described below.

The Fairweather and Saint Elias mountains have been etched by intense glacial erosion into a high, jagged palisade separating maritime lowlands and the Glacier Bay watershed from the continental interior. These great ranges formed the principal source area for Little Ice Age ice, but acted as a barrier for ice flowing seaward off the continent during the Great Ice Ages. Their peaks are still surrounded by extensive ice fields today.

Desolation Valley, lying along the inter-plate rift, intercepts ice from the mountains like a huge gutter and channels it to a few outlet valleys. In several of these valleys, ice reaches to or nearly to the sea, but Lituya Bay is presently almost ice-free.

A foreland of raised marine and river deposits, often cut into striking raised terraces or series of beaches and swales, lies seaward of the high country and between the outlets issuing from Desolation Valley. Much of this country is vegetated with forest and rich wetlands, and crossed by highly-productive streams. These streams as a whole provide some of the most productive fish and wildlife habitat in North America. During the last Great Ice Age, this ice drainage system kept a few lowland areas from being overrun and hence free to host plants and animals, although the climate would have been very severe.

Sandy, wave-pounded beaches are interrupted periodically by glacial deposits where outlet valleys have conducted ice to the sea. To the northwestward, these beaches tend increasingly to trap estuaries behind them. This beach-estuary complex comprises critical habitat for a variety of fish and wildlife, notably brown bears, wolves, waterfowl and salmon.

Shallow inshore seas contain large populations of Dungeness crab and schooling capelin. During migration, large numbers of many bird and marine mammal species move through these coastal waters and the above mentioned beach-estuary complex. Much of the entire Pacific populations of such species as Pacific loons and gray whales pass through the area.

Yakutat Bay delimits the province's northwest extremity. This large glacial fjord was filled with ice about 1,000 years ago, and has been partially occupied by minor advances at least once since then. The Hubbard Glacier at the Bay's elbow has periodically advanced to block the tributary Russell Fjord and create a lake. The most recent episode occurred a decade ago. Yakutat Bay has important halibut and crab grounds, and hosts a large concentration of harbor seals.

Midway through the province, the Alsek River breaches the coastal mountains and flows to the sea, creating a large delta-estuary complex. This area, Dry Bay, with very high salmon fishery values hosts a seasonal human population of a couple hundred people and is managed as a National Preserve where hunting and fishing are allowed to continue under special regulation by the National Park Service. Southeastward from Dry Bay, all lands and most waters out to three miles from shore are part of Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve. Northwestward, most lands are within the Tongass National Forest, though in designations that preclude logging.

The only permanent community in outer coast province is the largely Tlingit village of Yakutat, with a population of about 800. The economy of Yakutat is based largely on commercial fishing, guided sport fishing and hunting, and subsistence, with a growing component of ecotourism. Logging of National Forest lands began about two decades ago, but was not supported by residents and is now administratively designated for other uses.

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve
PO Box 140

Gustavus, AK 99826


(907) 697-2230

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